Good Friday – Why did Jesus have to die?
Some years ago, one of my kids had to renew the licence on his car. Unfortunately, he had some outstanding tickets. I think most of them were photo radar, but he couldn’t renew the licence until he paid the tickets. Well, he barely had enough money to pay for his licence. He certainly didn’t have enough to pay the tickets. So I did. I didn’t have to – I wasn’t the one who was speeding (over and over!) – but I was able to – and he wasn’t.
Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God have just waved his hands and made our sins go away? We know that Jesus died for our sins – he died so that we might have eternal life – but why did it have to happen this way? I recently read a novel that was based on the gospels. It described the torture that Jesus endured in great detail. And I’m sure many of you have seen the movie: The Passion of the Christ, again, a very graphic depiction of the way Jesus suffered for us. The question keeps coming back: Why did this have to happen?
C.S. Lewis addressed this question in his book: Mere Christianity. I’ll try to paraphrase some of his thoughts. I think many of us believe that God just got very angry at humanity for our sinfulness, and he had to take it out on somebody – someone had to be punished. And so he took it out on his Son. Well that just doesn’t make sense. Our God is a God of love. The passion and death of Jesus was not an act of vengeance – it was indeed, an act of love.
Our sinfulness was not a crime that needed to be punished – it was a debt that needed to be repaid. But just like my son couldn’t pay for his photo radar tickets, we couldn’t repay our debt to God. Someone else – someone who was able – had to foot the bill. Someone had to get us out of the hole we were in. But what sort of hole had we gotten ourselves into?
Well, we had forgotten about God – over and over again. We had forgotten that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God. We thought we belonged to ourselves. So to get out of that hole, we needed something more than a half-hearted: “Oh, I’ll try to do better next time.” We needed a total makeover from the ground up. We needed to surrender our egos, our selfishness, our self-importance. We needed a complete turn-around. We needed repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It requires us to give up so many of the things that we think are important – things we think we need to feel good about ourselves. It requires suffering, and a kind of death.
But couldn’t someone else have paid this debt? Why did it have to be Jesus? Couldn’t it have been someone like Mother Teresa – or how about Pope John Paul II? Well, in fact, both of these holy people died to themselves long before they were called from this world. Mother Teresa rejected the many comforts she could have enjoyed to look after the poorest of the poor. And John Paul II suffered greatly, especially in the last years of his life – for us. They showed us what it means to surrender – to give our lives over to God.
But here’s the catch. We sinners are the ones who need to repent and yet only a good person can repent perfectly. Only a perfect person – a perfect human being – could repent – pay the ticket for humanity – to a perfect God. And even people like Mother Teresa and John Paul II were not perfect. Only God is perfect, but it’s not in God’s nature to surrender, to suffer, to die. So the only way to accomplish the perfect repentance is for God to become a human person – then he could surrender, suffer, die. We saw Jesus surrender: “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” And we’re reminded especially today how Jesus suffered and died. God joined himself to us through Jesus so that Jesus could pay our debt – a debt that he had not incurred, a debt that he didn’t have to pay, but a debt that only he could pay.
Today is a day that I always feel sad – sad that Jesus had to die this horrible and painful death – sad that he had to do this because I sinned. And yet, we call it Good Friday, not Bad Friday, not Sad Friday. And we call it Good Friday because the perfect human person made the perfect sacrifice to our perfect God – and he did it for us.
Jesus’ Passion was not the necessary punishment required by a vengeful God. It was, quite simply, an act of perfect love.